Movie ratings -- you can't live with them, you can't live without them. Or so it seems after watching This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Kirby Dick's often-enjoyable look at the means by which the movie industry monitors its own products lest the government step in and do it for them. By at least one criterion, the ratings system that's been in place since 1968 has been a success: It's kept the government watchdogs largely at bay. By just about every other criterion, it's been a failure, the failure compounded by the way the system is run. An anonymous group of Los Angeles-area parents, hand-picked by the Motion Picture Association of America and given no training whatsoever, assigns ratings to movies based on... what? It's hard to say, and neither the board nor the MPAA is talking.
The anonymity is supposed to protect the board members from outside pressure as they go about tallying the number of pelvic thrusts, F-words and God knows what else. But Dick isn't buying that argument, and one of the things his documentary does is track down every member of the board as of 2005 - a private investigator was hired to stake out the MPAA's Encino headquarters - and reveal their names. Another thing the documentary does is expose the biases that the board has fallen into over the years: favoring studio movies over independent films, violence over sex, straight sex over gay sex, male pleasure over female pleasure, especially prolonged female pleasure. "Who's ever been hurt by a long orgasm?" asks Kimberly Pierce, director of Boys Don't Cry.
But would I want my 10-year-old daughter to see it? Not necessarily. My 15-year-old daughter? Hmm. Dick does seem to see the need for some kind of ratings system, if only to filter out the graphic violence that bothers him much more than graphic sex. (One man's meat?.) But he seems a little hung up on the distinction between an R and an NC-17 when what most parents are concerned about are the distinctions between G, PG and PG-13. And is it really the board's fault if various theater chains, video stores, newspapers and TV networks won't touch an NC-17 movie? Obviously, the system needs reforming. There needs to be more transparency, more accountability. But it isn't all that hard to imagine -- especially if the government gets involved -- a set-up even worse than this one.